How Victims Become New Oppressors: The Metamorphosis of a Pious Generation in Turkey

A lawmaker’s faint heed for the realities of the past sparked a debate over female empowerment in Turkey. It also recalled the transformation of yesterday’s victims to today’s oppressors.

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AKP lawmaker Ozlem Zengin, C, speaks at a press conference in April.

“Before the AKP government, there was even no concept of woman in Turkey.” (Ozlem Zengin)

Ozlem Zengin, a lawmaker from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), inadvertently stirred an impassioned debate over the role and place of women in the modern history of Turkey’s social fabric and political setting. She attributed the greatest contribution to her party in empowering women in a patriarchal society to uproot the male domination in politics, economy, and education. In her account, the current government placed the woman in higher social esteem in a revolutionary way by introducing rights never enacted before. But her feeble attachment to the course of realities in history only undermined her embellished narrative unmoored even from the basic facts of today’s Turkey.

The Emergence of Ozlem Zengin’s Generation

During the heady days of 1997 and 1998, Bayezid Square in front of Istanbul University was a gathering point for thousands of students to protest a ban imposed by the National Security Council (MGK) to deny education to female students wearing headscarves. In the last day of February in 1997, the Turkish military issued a memorandum to the face of Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party and Prime Minister in a Welfare-led center-right coalition government, at the MGK meeting that cobbled together the formidable generals and cabinet ministers to discuss matters of national importance. The infamous Feb. 28 signified a watershed moment in Turkey’s modern political history as it marked another (yet subtle) form of military interference in political affairs. A post-modern coup though it was, the MGK meeting led to the resignation of Erbakan and the collapse of the government in the months to come that same year.

Politics of Memory and Tales of Victimhood

As elites associated with the government party, which sprang from the ideological continuum represented by the Welfare Party line, commemorate the day (or month) every year with mixed feelings of triumph and tragedy, how to describe the legacy of the controversial Feb. 28 period implacably remains contested.

From Oppressed to Oppressors

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A picture of women from a prison in the western Turkish province of Bursa on Feb. 28, 2019.

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Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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